SOPHIE'S CURSE? They Take the Prize For Literary Promise, But Not All Can Take The Pressure That Follows

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On this warm graduation day, Washington College's 900 or so students all have that aura of the well-bred and well-heeled. A faint hum of Anglophilia is in the Eastern Shore air, like white noise.

This is the kind of campus where lacrosse and literature are the favored pastimes, where graduates like to linger nearby long after they've been handed diplomas. Small schools breed that sort of intimacy.

But few small colleges can boast of bestowing an honor as legendary as the Sophie Kerr Prize, a hefty chunk of money handed out each May at Washington's commencement to a graduating student whose writing inspires faith in future literary promise.

They're handing out the award now. A hush falls over the crowd. The Sophie Kerr winner is announced.

The second she hears her first name, Katherine Melissa Degentesh jumps out of her seat, long hair flying beneath her mortarboard, academic gown swirling around her. Degentesh is floating, not walking to the stage, and the approving sounds rising up around her tell onlookers this young woman is a popular choice.

Degentesh, English major, poet, editor of the college's literary magazine and part-time deli worker, is the 1995 winner of the Sophie Kerr Prize -- $26,211 in cash. Minutes later the slender redhead is whisked into a news conference where her family and two of her professors beam as she fields questions.

She's justifiably excited and happy and unable to recall who her favorite writers are right this minute. The Pasadena native, whose winning submission included 25 poems and an essay, says she's going on to graduate school at the University of California at Davis.

"I thought I might spend some time traveling to get there," Degentesh says laughing.

Every year at graduation time, the Sophie Kerr Prize brings a flurry of attention to this private liberal arts school in Chestertown, a sleepy Kent County town on the Chester River. And why shouldn't it? The Sophie Kerr Prize is the largest undergraduate award in the United States -- nearly 10 times the cash grant of a Pulitzer Prize and far more than the average advance for a first novel from a major New York publishing house.

But, legend has it the prize also comes with a price. Win and you can kiss your literary career goodbye. You'll end up waiting tables and papering your bathroom walls with rejection slips. You'll crank out advertising copy and bodice rippers, forever banned from belles-lettres.

It's Sophie's Curse. Or so they say.

Largess for Literature

No one reads Sophie Kerr any more. Yet in the '30s and '40s, her books of light fiction were best sellers, and her short stories regularly appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Ladies' Home Journal and Cosmopolitan.

Born in Caroline County in 1881, Sophie Kerr became a newspaper reporter and magazine editor and carved out a successful free-lance career that enabled her to live the life of a Manhattan socialite. An early marriage to a mining engineer named Underwood ended in divorce. Kerr was well traveled, something of a gourmet, and active in Republican politics.

Many of her stories were set in the Eastern Shore environs she knew as a girl. Some make interesting reading today, as much for their intimate glimpses into a forgotten time as for the pithiness of her prose.

An oil portrait of Sophie Kerr hanging in the Washington College library shows a dark-eyed, soulfully pretty young woman in blue. It comes as a surprise to many people that Kerr did not attend the school.

Legend has it that Kerr, who died in 1965, left her money to Washington College because her alma mater, Hood College in Frederick, practiced the vivisection of cats in its biology department.

Kerr was a great cat fancier. Among the artifacts she bequeathed the college are her needlepoint cat rug and numerous photographs of herself as an elegant matron, posing with various feline pets.

At the height of her fame, in the '40s, Sophie Kerr was invited, along with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, to give a commencement speech at Washington College. Perhaps she remembered the honor later and wanted to repay the college with a lasting bequest.

It is also said that one of the college's presidents talked the childless Kerr into making the bequest. At the end of her life Kerr still maintained some ties to the Shore and visited the area from time to time.

The amount of the prize, said by sources within the college to be derived from the interest on oil stocks, fluctuates from year to year. This year's prize, to be awarded today, is expected to be $26,725.

The prize, first given in 1968, has made Washington College a drawing card for literary aspirants. Some students openly say they chose the college because of the possibility of winning enough money to start their postgraduate education.

While word of the Sophie Kerr Prize has gotten around, what is fairly unknown, says the chairman of the college's English department, is that the student's cash award is only half of the total prize. The other half goes to the school and does much for other undergraduates.

This year's disbursement, Professor Bennett Lamond says, will sponsor four scholarships, buy books for the college's Miller Library and pay for the Sophie Kerr Lecture Series, which gives students the opportunity to meet and mingle with distinguished writers.

Over the years the money has brought to Washington College such literary luminaries as John Ashbery, William Styron, R. W. "Johnny" Apple, Gwendolyn Brooks, Mark Strand, John Barth, Joseph Brodsky, Allen Ginsberg, Edward Albee, Toni Morrison, Diane Bukowski and Katherine Ann Porter.

A student must surpass stiff competition and a tight selection process to win the Sophie Kerr Prize, which Lamond says is given to the graduating student "who shows the best ability and promise for future fulfillment of literary endeavor."

Several weeks before commencement the college president and the members of the English department, currently numbering seven, read portfolios of writing samples submitted by graduating seniors.

"We've had as many as 15 and as few as four students submit," Lamond says. "Friday morning before commencement, we meet at the president's house and discuss what we've read, discuss the merits."

The portfolios are eliminated by voting rounds. "It gets hot and heavy at times," Lamond says with a laugh. "But we try to make the decision by noon. We try to bring in what we know about the students, their future involvement in the literary life. Beyond that, we look for the greatest potential."

The winner's name is announced at commencement, and not a moment before, lest the fun be spoiled. Immediately afterward, a news conference is held so the winner can meet the media, as Katie Degentesh did.

Great Expectations

But what happens after the tumult dies down? How have past prize winners fared? Is promise enough? Is there really such a thing as Sophie's Curse? Or is that just folklore, an old student's tale told after 36 straight hours of cramming for an exam on deconstructing George Eliot?

As is usually the case with legends, there's more myth than truth at work.

A look at previous Sophie Kerr Prize winners shows while none has yet won a Pulitzer Prize or a Nobel Prize, most have kept on writing, and some have done quite well in the competitive arena, publishing books or editing magazines. Others are teachers, graduate students, even a doctor of medicine.

There are, of course, those who tend bar and wait tables. And it is clear that there comes with the prize a burden of expectations that has weighed heavily on many. That is perhaps the reason why people came to speak of Sophie's Curse.

Some former winners, for whatever reason, declined to talk about their post-prize lives. "That was someone else in another life," one said softly before hanging up the phone.

But for most recipients, winning the prize marked the beginning of the kind of journey on which last year's winner, Katie Degentesh, now finds herself. A year after graduation from Washington, she is indeed in grad school at the University of California at Davis, a college of about 2,000 students north of San Francisco.

"[Being the winner] was very hard at first," she recalls in a telephone interview. "I was working 40 hours a week at a deli in Chestertown, and everyone was coming in and saying congratulations and I got really tired of the attention. I even received some really bad poems from an admirer about air traffic control. Now, I'm teaching freshman English courses, and I'm only a couple years older than my students!"

The prize, she says, "went a little bit to my head at first. But it hasn't really changed my life. I live off my salary. I do have nicer clothes, but I'm just saving the money. It's made my life more secure." She lives a notch more pleasantly than most grad students -- in a rented house with two law students.

Degentesh continues to write. "I've published poems in two literary magazines, the Plum and the Hawaii Review. This summer I'm going to work on a fishing boat in Alaska."

She'd like to intern on a magazine or a newspaper, but adds, "I think my real 15 minutes of fame are yet to come."

If you mention the curse to William Chapman Bowie, the Sophie Kerr winner from the class of '75, you get a disdainful second's silence. "I can understand the human interest in someone getting handed a huge chunk of money. However, hundreds of athletes get bigger scholarships," he says with a sigh. "You don't get any sneaker endorsements on the way through as a poet."

Bowie, a reserved 45-year-old, recalls his feelings when his name was announced at graduation. "It's actually kind of unnerving. ... Someone says, 'There's the money. I hope your promise pays off.' " He laughs. "I can't say that it changed my life, but it made it a lot easier."

His check was in the low teens, he says. "I invested it in mutual funds. The prize allowed me to have options. I was able to go to graduate school, and I started a collection of modern Japanese prints."

Now living in Baltimore, Bowie has won several awards for his poetry. A book he wrote, "The Conservator's Song," was published by University of Arkansas Press in 1993 to favorable reviews. He has been a gifted-and-talented teacher in writing programs at Goucher College and local community colleges.

Seven years ago, he became "fascinated with computers," he says, and now owns W.C.B., a desktop-publishing business in Towson. "I do both print and electronic media, and lately I've expanded into electronic publishing, creating sites on the Web for my clients," he says.

He also continues to write poetry.

'It Gave Me A Start'

When officials at Washington College want to show off a Sophie success story, they point to Peter Turchi, who won the award in 1982. Now, at age 36, he has published three books: "The Girls Next Door," a novel; "Magician," a collection of short stories, and "Pirate Prince," a nonfiction work he co-authored about the salvaging of the 18th-century buccaneer wreck Widdah off Cape Cod.

Universal Studios has bought an option on "The Girls Next Door," and Turchi is at work on what he describes as a long novel. He is also director of the Master of Fine Arts Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, in Swannonoa, N.C. If you're Peter Turchi, life is good.

"I was happy, of course, honored and proud," he says of receiving the award. "At the same time, I was aware of an inevitable tension around campus the last few weeks of school. There was a feeling that if you won, several of your closest friends would not. It's an odd thing to add to a college commencement."

In a telephone interview from his home in Asheville, N.C., Turchi says that what he did with the prize was "pretty dull."

"People said, 'Well, you should go out and spend it,' but I invested it, for the most part," he says. "With the money, I was able to go to grad school at the University of Arizona as a teaching assistant. When I got out of grad school it allowed me some freedom.

"It's no guarantee of anything," he adds. "The honor meant a lot, and I told people about that, but I've kept the amount to myself. It gave me a start, a better level of security."

It is almost possible to hear him grinning over the phone as he says, "I was also able to use some of it to invite [rhythm and blues legend] Big Joe Turner to perform at my wedding."

The Randallstown native is married, and he and his wife, Laura, a teacher, have a 6-year-old son, Reed. "I'm happy with the prize. Happy with Washington College. Happy with my writing and with my life," he says.

Others Sophie Kerr winners are not so ecstatic.

When she was first contacted, Sandra Hiortdahl wasn't sure she wanted to talk about how winning the prize had affected her life. A shy, sensitive and introspective woman, she took more than a month to agreed to a conversation.

She spoke in her sunny apartment overlooking the Chester River. Here she has remained close to the college and to her family, who own a cattle farm in rural Kent County.

Hiortdahl, 31, was the Sophie winner in the class of '85, and the experience -- a decidedly mixed blessing -- profoundly influenced her life. In talking with her, one senses that she feels her promise has gone unfulfilled, and the expectations have weighed her down.

She articulates her thoughts with wry caution.

"For a long time after winning the prize, I felt like I didn't deserve it," she says. "I've spent a lot of time trying to prove that I did deserve it. If I hadn't won it, I'd still probably be trying to prove that I did deserve it."

She frowns, gazing out the window through sleepy blue eyes. She recalls hearing her name announced at commencement, and the sudden, intimidating and exhilarating experience of being surrounded by reporters. The intoxication of winning, the attention, still haunts her. Those 15 minutes of fame are something she is still struggling to understand a decade later.

"I was dizzy and excited," Hiortdahl recalls. "I remember feeling really scared after graduation. ... We were all filing out in some semblance of order, and people were pointing at me, saying, 'She's the one.' And the reporters were surrounding me. ... I felt displaced."

Her prize was about $30,000, she says. She spent a great deal of it traveling. "California, L.A., San Francisco, New Orleans, the whole deal. And I lent a lot of it to my friends. I wanted to let them share the wealth," she says laughing. "Then I trashed myself for not investing it. But if I had to do it all over again, I'd do the same things. I had a good time. We all had a good time."

Hiortdahl received a master's degree in fine arts from George Mason University and is pursuing a second master's in English literature at the University of Maryland. She also tutors Washington College students in literature and English.

Part of her prize-winning portfolio was a novella. It was never published, nor were three other novels that she wrote. After a hiatus from writing, she recently returned to fiction. She supports herself with a variety of odd jobs, including working as a clerk in a bookstore.

She promises that she will produce a book. The three unpublished novels are stashed away in boxes, she says, but "I'm writing a damn fine novel now. The others were good, but now I'm feeling really good about this one."

She smiles thoughtfully.

"I feel comfortably separated from the past now. I'm at peace."

Asked about Sophie's Curse, she laughs. "I think we're all cursed. But you have to admit, being cursed with $30,000 is being ahead of the game!"

HELEN CHAPPELL is the author of the mystery novel "Slow Dancing With the Angel of Death," (Fawcett, 1996).

Pub Date: 5/19/96

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